Imagine a house that looks no different than any other. The same paint, the same floors; an average home. But inside the walls, it’s insulated not with fiberglass batting, but with mushrooms – or more technically- mycelium. Imagine an ICF home, with mycelium taking the place of the EPS foam that surrounds the concrete, or even a house built from mycelium composite blocks entirely. While these sound like ideas for the future, that future may not be so far off.
What is a Mycelium?
Mycelium is a root or vein-like fungal network. It can be found below ground, or other locations like tree trunks and rotting wood and organic materials. It’s also the organism that mushrooms grow from.
Mycelia are already incredibly important to the environment, aiding in the decomposition of plant materials, and in adding nutrients to soil. In fact, scientists have found that adding certain types of mycelia to the roots of saplings before they’re planted can greatly aid reforestation efforts.
Mycelium could be considered the “wonder drug” of nature. Its an incredibly versatile organism, and scientists and companies have been exploring the numerous possibilities of its uses. For example, back in 2011, scientists discovered a fungus that decomposes polyurethane. Others have even been exploring ways to use certain funguses as vegan alternatives to food and leather. And while it doesn’t yet seem to be the primary focus for many companies, scientists are also researching the possibilities for the use of mycelium and fungus in and as building materials.
It starts with Mycelium Composite.
Mycelium composite is made by allowing mycelia to grow inside a mold (eg. a brick mold) that’s filled with a substrate. This can be composed of a variety of organic materials, such as rice husks and other agricultural wastes, and the combination of substrate materials impacts the resulting strength, flexibility and other qualities of the final composite. Once the mycelium has completely filled out the space within the mold, it is baked or fired to prevent continued growth.
What you are left with at the end of the process is a hardened mycelium composite brick. Researchers are finding that this material holds up well when compared against more traditional building materials.
For example, various studies and tests comparing the thermal properties of mycelium bricks and panels with insulation materials like fiberglass have shown that mycelium has a high thermal capacity, with an R-Value of at least 3 or 4 per inch and have also found it to be highly fire resistant.
Mycelium isn’t the only biological material that has the potential to transform construction, either. The Living Materials lab at CU Boulder has even discovered ways to engineer certain bacteria to produce limestone and styrene (the chemical used to make polystyrene foam). This “Cyanobacteria” could be used to create building materials exponentially, which would be incredibly useful when considering that one of the most unsustainable building materials is concrete due to the materials required to make it.
Getting “Fungi” with it.
While scientists are busy researching, artists and architects are finding ways to incorporate mycelium composite bricks into their sculptures to demonstrate the possibilities of the material.
MY-CO-X Collective in Berlin was established in 2020 to do just that. Together they created MY-CO SPACE, an inhabitable sculpture made from wood and hexagon-shaped mycelium composite panels. It’s small and its shape is organic, reminiscent of a cocoon, but it clearly displays the potential for mycelium composite to be used as a building material even today in certain scenarios, such as those that would require emergency or temporary housing.
Other similar projects include the Hy-Fi, installed in New York by the architects, The Living, and The Growing Pavilion by New Heroes, first installed for Dutch Design Week 2019 and then again at Floriade Expo 2022. While each has its own unique artistic design, and even come from different substrate materials, they all intend to showcase to their viewers what the future with mycelium can hold.